‘Stop interfering in Afghanistan’, says Taliban leader in rare appearance

Taliban’s supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada's appearance comes a week after a powerful earthquake struck the east of the country, killing over 1,000 people. (AFP)
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Updated 01 July 2022
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‘Stop interfering in Afghanistan’, says Taliban leader in rare appearance

  • Akhundzada was addressing a major gathering of religious scholars in Kabul

KABUL: Taliban’s reclusive supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada called Friday for the world to stop telling them how to run Afghanistan, insisting sharia law was the only model for a successful Islamic state.
Akhundzada, who has not been filmed or photographed in public since the Taliban returned to power in August, was addressing a major gathering of religious scholars in the Afghan capital called to rubber-stamp the hard-line Islamist group’s rule.
Over 3,000 clerics have gathered in Kabul since Thursday for the three-day men-only meeting, and Akhundzada’s appearance had been rumored for days — although media are barred from covering the event.
“Why is the world interfering in our affairs?” he asked in an hour-long speech broadcast by state radio.
“They say ‘why don’t you do this, why don’t you do that?’ Why does the world interfere in our work?“
Akhundzada rarely leaves Kandahar, the Taliban’s birthplace and spiritual heartland, and apart from one undated photograph and several audio recordings of speeches, has almost no digital footprint.
But analysts say the former Sharia court judge has an iron grip on the movement and he bears the title “Commander of the Faithful.”
His arrival at the meeting hall was greeted with cheers and chants, including “Long live the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the Taliban’s name for the country.
Akhundzada’s appearance comes a week after a powerful earthquake struck the east of the country, killing over 1,000 people and leaving tens of thousands homeless.
No women are attending the clerics’ meeting, but a Taliban source told AFP this week that thorny issues such as girls’ education — which has divided opinion in the movement — would be discussed.
Akhundzada did not mention the subject in his speech, which was confined largely to telling the faithful to strictly observe Islamic principles in life and governance.
Since the Taliban’s return, secondary school girls have been barred from education and women dismissed from government jobs, forbidden from traveling alone, and ordered to dress in clothing that covers everything but their faces.
They have also outlawed playing non-religious music, banned the portrayal of human figures in advertising, ordered TV channels to stop showing movies and soap operas featuring uncovered women, and told men they should dress in traditional garb and grow their beards.
Akhundzada said the Taliban had won victory for Afghanistan, but it was up to the “ulema” — the religious scholars — to advise the new rulers on how to properly implement sharia law.
“The sharia system comes under two parts — scholars and rulers,” he said.
“If scholars do not advise authorities to do good, or the rulers close the doors against the scholars, then we will have not an Islamic system.”
Believed to be in his 70s, Akhundzada spoke in strong measured tones, occasionally coughing or clearing his throat.
He warned that non-Muslim nations would always be opposed to a pure Islamic state, so the faithful had to endure hardships to get what they wanted.
“You have to compete, you have to endure hardships... the present world will not easily accept you implementing the Islamic system,” he said.
Women’s rights activists have slammed their lack of participation.
“Women should be part of the decisions about their fate,” Razia Barakzai told AFP Thursday.
“Life has been taken away from Afghan women.”
The Taliban have thrown a dense security blanket over the capital for the meeting, but on Thursday two gunmen were shot dead near the venue.


Pope warns against ‘spiral of violence’ after Iran attack

Updated 14 April 2024
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Pope warns against ‘spiral of violence’ after Iran attack

  • The Pope once again repeated earlier calls for a ceasefire in Gaza and negotiation

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis on Sunday made a “pressing appeal” against a “spiral of violence” after Iran’s unprecedented missile and drone attack on Israel, warning of a potential regional conflagration.
“I make a pressing appeal for an end to any action which could fuel a spiral of violence that risks dragging the Middle East into an even greater conflict,” the Argentinian pontiff declared following his traditional Sunday prayer in Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican.
“I am praying and following with concern, but also pain, the news that has come in recent hours about the worsening situation in Israel due to Iran’s intervention,” the pope told worshippers.
“No one should threaten the existence of others. All countries must, however, side with peace and help Israelis and Palestinians to live in two states, side by side and in security,” he said.
“That is their right,” Francis insisted as he once again repeated earlier calls for a ceasefire in Gaza and “negotiation.”
The pontiff futhermore demanded the world “help the population facing a humanitarian crisis” in Gaza and urged the “immediate release of the hostages kidnapped months ago” by Hamas, setting in train the latest chapter of violence in the region.


MI5 sued by Manchester Arena bomb survivors

Updated 14 April 2024
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MI5 sued by Manchester Arena bomb survivors

  • Relatives of victims say failure to stop Salman Abedi before attack violated Human Rights Act
  • 22 people were murdered and hundreds injured at Ariana Grande concert in 2017

London: UK intelligence agency MI5 is being sued by hundreds of survivors of the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing.

Twenty-two people were killed at an Ariana Grande concert in May that year when Salman Abedi, 22, detonated a homemade device loaded with nuts and bolts in the venue’s foyer, leaving hundreds more injured.

An inquiry into the attack subsequently found “there was a realistic possibility that actionable intelligence could have been obtained which might have led to actions preventing the attack.”

Sir John Saunders, the presiding judge in the inquiry, added that an MI5 officer had missed a “significant” opportunity to act and that there was a lack of communication between the intelligence agency and counterterrorism police.

A group of 250 survivors and relatives of those who died say MI5 could have prevented the attack, and that negligence in failing to do so breaches the “right to life” enshrined in the UK’s Human Rights Act.

MI5 will be required to present all evidence about how preventable the situation was at a hearing likely to happen in early 2025.

The inquiry found that MI5 had received information on Abedi in the months before the attack, but an official, identified as Witness J, said it had been treated as a criminal matter, and not related to terrorism. On questioning, Saunders found that other MI5 officials had held concerns at the time that this was a mistake, and that in any event, MI5 had kept the information it received about Abedi secret.

Saunders said that had it been treated differently and action taken, Abedi might conceivably have been detained on May 18, 2017 when he arrived at Manchester Airport from Libya with, it is believed, items related to bomb-making.

In 2023 MI5 Director General Ken McCallum issued an apology on behalf of the agency, saying that it was “profoundly sorry” for what had happened.

A spokesperson for three law firms representing the complainants — Hudgell Solicitors, Slater and Gordon and Broudie Jackson Canter — said: “Legal teams representing injured survivors of the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017 can confirm that they have collectively submitted a group claim on behalf of more than 250 clients to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. As it is an ongoing legal matter, we are unable or provide any further details, or comment further, at this stage.”

A legal source told The Times: “This legal action is not about money or compensation, it’s about holding MI5 to account for failing to prevent 22 people dying and many hundreds more being seriously injured.”

Legal action against intelligence services in the UK, which goes through the Investigatory Powers Tribunal rather than the UK court system, is rare but not unprecedented.

In 2016 Prime Minister Theresa May was forced to issue an apology for the role played by MI6 in the rendition, detention and torture of Abdul Hakim BelHajj by the US in 2004. BelHajj’s wife, who was detained alongside him and was pregnant at the time, received £500,000 ($622,850) in compensation.

Joseph Kotrie-Monson, whose law firm represented a former British intelligence officer suing the UK government over post-traumatic stress resulting from his work, told The Times: “There is always the challenge of proving causation in any case where a public body has been accused of a failure in its duties, particularly when it comes to the security services.

“Disclosure of evidence is also often a terminal problem for any legal action, and typically the domestic courts will err on the side of caution when it comes to government bodies protecting confidential information.

“However, this particular forum, and the human rights claim, may be well suited to dealing with the challenges of a complaint against a clandestine organization like MI5.”


India’s Modi promises jobs, infrastructure if BJP wins third term

Updated 14 April 2024
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India’s Modi promises jobs, infrastructure if BJP wins third term

  • India’s general election, which begins April 19, will be held in seven stages till June 1
  • Modi is widely tipped to win record-equaling third term on the back of his 10-year record

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) promised on Sunday to create jobs, boost infrastructure and expand welfare programs if it wins a third term, seeking to address key voter concerns ahead of next week’s elections.

The general election, which begins on April 19, will be held in seven stages until June 1. Votes are due to be counted on June 4 and results are expected the same day.

Modi, 73, is widely tipped to win a record-equalling third term on the back of his 10-year record, which includes strong economic growth, infrastructure projects, welfare handouts and aggressive Hindu nationalism.

Surveys, however, suggest unemployment, inflation and rural distress remain issues of concern in the world’s most populous country despite its strong economy, and addressing these will be Modi’s biggest challenge.

“Our focus is on dignity of life ... on quality of life, our focus is also on creating jobs through investment,” Modi said after releasing the manifesto, titled Modi’s Guarantee, at the party headquarters in the capital.

Modi said the manifesto is focused on creating jobs in sectors such as infrastructure, aviation, railways, electric vehicles, green energy, semiconductors and pharmaceuticals, among others, in a bid to address discontent at unemployment levels that are rising despite strong economic growth.

“India’s youth will not have even imagined the number of opportunities that will come their way,” he told cheering BJP members, including top federal ministers who sat in the audience wearing stoles featuring the BJP’s lotus symbol.

CONGRESS CLAIMS EMPTY PROMISES

Congress, the main opposition party, which has been struggling to revive its fortunes, said it was not impressed by a manifesto that is filled with “empty promises.”

“Today, people want to ask what happened in the last 10 years,” Congress lawmaker Manish Tewari said. “Unemployment is rampant and inflation has broken the back of common people.

The people of the country will hold him (Modi) to account for what’s happened in the last 10 years.”

Modi also vowed to expand welfare programs, including bringing all Indians above the age of 70 under an existing free health insurance program and pushing piped cooking gas connections to all houses to follow up on a subsidized cooking gas cylinder program launched in 2016.

Other BJP promises include raising the cap on loans for non-farming small and micro borrowers, offering free housing for another 30 million poor and keeping up a free grains program for 800 million Indians until 2029.

The manifesto said the BJP government would continue to focus on a path of low inflation and fiscal prudence to achieve high economic growth.

“The ambition of the 1.4 billion people of the country is Modi’s mission,” Modi said. “I am placing this manifesto before the people to seek their blessings. Please bless us ... to increase our strength ... implement this manifesto and ensure a developed India.”

Unemployment was the primary concern of 27 percent of the 10,000 voters surveyed by Lokniti-CSDS across 19 of India’s 28 states, with rising prices coming second at 23 percent, the Hindu newspaper reported last week.

The unemployment rate rose to 5.4 percent in 2022/23, from 4.9 percent in 2013/14 just before Modi swept to power, and nearly 16 percent of urban youth in the 15-29 years age group remained unemployed in 2022/23 due to poor skills and a lack of quality jobs, official data shows.

“BJP does not even want to discuss the most important issues related to people’s lives,” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi posted on X. 

“This time the youth is not going to fall into Modi’s trap, now they will strengthen the hands of Congress and bring an ‘employment revolution’ in the country.” 


Ancient New Year celebration caps long Eid holidays in Bangladesh

Updated 14 April 2024
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Ancient New Year celebration caps long Eid holidays in Bangladesh

  • New Year’s parade in Dhaka was added to UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list in 2016
  • Festive procession was first organized as protest against military rule by college students

DHAKA: Thousands of Bangladeshis crowded the streets of Dhaka on Sunday to welcome the Bengali New Year in a festive and colorful celebration reconnecting them with their traditional heritage.

In the capital, people were clad in traditional attire with many dressed in red as they marched and danced in a procession that started at a prominent arts college on the Dhaka University campus.

The parade, called Mangal Shobhajatra, was recognized as an intangible cultural heritage in 2016 by UNESCO.

“This Bengali New Year celebration is part and parcel of our culture,” said Arafat Rahman, a student at Dhaka University.

“This is the only festival in our culture where people from all walks of life join together irrespective of class, caste, and religion. With these celebrations, we welcome the new year with a hope of prosperity for the next year and wish for the well-being of the countrymen.”

Rahman, who is a third-year arts student and has participated in the rally since he enrolled in Dhaka University, said the elaborate and colorful masks used in the procession are picked from Bangladesh’s folk cultures, while the choice of animal figures is linked to the lives of farmers and people in rural areas.

“To many extents, through this procession, people reconnect themselves with the origin and nature of this land,” he said.

Bangladeshis were clad in traditional attire, with many dressed in red, as they marched with colorful masks in Dhaka on April 14, 2024. (AN Photo) 

For Mily Khan, a 37-year-old resident of Dhaka, the New Year parade is a reminder of Bangladesh’s heritage.

“Every year, the celebration style remains the same, but it reignites the spirit of Bengali culture among the minds of the people. This celebration is something we need to nurture most as it is part of our roots, and this is our identity as a Bengali-speaking nation,” Khan said.

“Nowadays, our life has become more automated and urban. We can’t manage time to visit the homes in the villages. But the Mangal Shobhajatra rally, fairs, welcoming the new year with dance and songs, all these components together remind us of the origin of our culture.”

Sunday was a national holiday in Bangladesh. This year, the Bengali New Year — known locally as Pohela Boishakh — took place right after the Eid Al-Fitr holidays, with various celebrations taking place across the country of 170 million people.

The Bengali calendar emerged under the 16th-century Mughal emperor Akbar, who combined Islamic and solar Hindu calendars to facilitate tax collection.

The New Year celebrations in Bangladesh have also been a medium of protest “against all sorts of irregularities and oppression in society,” especially in recent years, said Prof. Muntasir Mamun, a renowned Bangladeshi historian.

“This Mangal Shobhajatra was first organized (in 1989) as a protest against the then military ruler of the country. Mangal Shobhajatra is the only secular festival in the world that originated as a tool of protest, and to date, it holds the same spirit,” Mamun told Arab News.

“It’s a rally of festivity, joy, and protest also. The fine arts department (at Dhaka University) always organizes the rally without any corporate sponsor. They do it with people’s participation and by the little contributions from the public,” he said.

“This approach made the Mangal Shobhajatra a platform for all the people of the country … It’s a platform where people from all walks of life join together, wishing for a peaceful society.”


Sydney mall attacker identified, ‘nothing’ to suggest terror motive

People are led out from the Westfield Shopping Centre where multiple people were stabbed in Sydney, Saturday, April 13, 2024.
Updated 14 April 2024
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Sydney mall attacker identified, ‘nothing’ to suggest terror motive

  • The assailant — who was shot dead by a senior police officer at the scene on Saturday — was Queensland man Joel Cauchi

SYDNEY: Australian police on Sunday said a 40-year-old itinerant with mental illness was behind a Sydney shopping center stabbing rampage that killed six people, including a new mum whose nine-month-old baby is still in hospital with serious wounds.

New South Wales police Assistant Commissioner Anthony Cooke said the assailant — who was shot dead by a senior police officer at the scene on Saturday — was Queensland man Joel Cauchi.

Five women and one male security guard were killed in the attack as Cauchi roved through a packed shopping center in the city’s Bondi Junction neighborhood with a large knife. Twelve more people are still in hospital.

“The sound of people screaming was horrific,” said eyewitness Daphi Kiselstein, who was shopping at the time of the attack and took refuge in a store with other terrified people.

Cooke said there was no evidence to suggest Cauchi was “driven by any particular motivation, ideology or otherwise.”

“We know that the offender in the matter suffered from, suffers from, mental health,” he added.

Cauchi was tracked down and shot dead by solo senior police officer Amy Scott, who was instantly hailed by Australia’s prime minister as a “hero” who had saved countless lives.

Cauchi’s parents said their son had been living in a vehicle and hostels of late, and was only in sporadic contact via text messages.

Police said he was diagnosed with a mental health issue at age 17, but they had no indication about why he may have become violent.

His parents issued a statement through police offering condolences to their son’s victims and their families.

They had also sent a message of “support” to the officer who shot him dead, “expressing their concerns for her welfare.”

Queensland police said Cauchi had been in contact with police several times over the last four to five years but has never been arrested or charged with any offense.

He is believed to have traveled to Sydney about a month ago and hired a small storage unit in the city. It contained personal belongings, including a boogie board.

The attack has caused sorrow, outrage and shock in Sydney, where residents are relatively unaccustomed to violent crime.

The shopping center is the focal point of a well frequented suburb near the famed beach, and is always filled with shoppers and families going for meals or to the cinema.

Among the victims was 38-year-old mother Ashlee Good, who succumbed to her injuries after desperately passing her baby to two strangers in the hope they could save the child’s life.

Good’s family described her as “a beautiful mother, daughter, sister, partner, friend, all round outstanding human and so much more.”

“To the two men who held and cared for our baby when Ashlee could not — words cannot express our gratitude,” they said in a statement to Australian media.

The baby, named Harriet, was said to be recovering well after lengthy surgery.

Two of the victims are said to have no family in Australia and attempts are being made to contact relatives overseas.

A Facebook profile said Cauchi came from Toowoomba, near Brisbane, and had attended a local high school and university.

A distinctive grey, red and yellow dragon tattoo on his right arm was used to help identify him.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Australians were struggling to understand an “unspeakable” attack that is “really just beyond comprehension.”

“People going about their Saturday afternoon shopping should be safe, shouldn’t be at risk. But tragically, we saw a loss of life, and people will be grieving for loved ones today,” he said.

“We also know there are many people still in hospital dealing with recovery, and our thoughts and prayers are with them.”

Albanese said he had received messages from US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and New Zealand Prime Minister Christopher Luxon among others.

Outside the shopping center early on Sunday, a collection of flowers started to build.

Families embraced as they lay flowers. One man stood silently and wiped away tears, before moving on.

Sydney resident Paul Hoolahan said he came to pay his respects to those who died at the shopping center, where he often has coffee with his grandchildren.

“It is emotional,” Hoolahan told AFP. “It shouldn’t happen. It hit here,” he said pointing to his chest.

New South Wales premier Chris Minns flew back from Japan on news of the attack.

He said it had been “incredible to see complete strangers jump in, run toward the danger for their own lives in harm’s way to save someone that they’ve never met before.”

“We’ve got some wonderful people in our city,” he said.